(CN) — The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sought Wednesday to intervene in a lawsuit challenging the creation of a marine monument by former President Barack Obama off the New England coast.
In a motion filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the NRDC, Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity, and Maine resident R. Zack Klyver argue the 4,913 -square-mile monument area has “extraordinary scientific and ecological importance,” including its rare deep-sea corals and endangered whales.
President Barack Obama created the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean in September 2016 to protect endangered and threatened species affected by commercial fishing and other human activity.
“We’re protecting fragile ecosystems off the coast of New England, including pristine undersea canyons and seamounts,” Obama said during the Our Ocean conference held in Washington that month. “We’re helping make the oceans more resilient to climate change, and we’re doing it in a way that respects the fishing industry’s unique role in New England’s economy and history.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument is roughly the size of Connecticut and has been called an “underwater Yellowstone.”
In written statement applauding the president’s action, NRDC President Rhea Suh said the protective designation was an ” historic act will make our ocean more resilient to climate change. By preserving this rich diversity of marine life, it will also support New England’s coastal and ocean economy.”
A study in August found that low-frequency noise from passing cargo ships and freighters are disrupting humpback whales’ ability to feed off the coast of New England.
But opponents are already challenging the creation of the marine monument, labeling it an illegal use of presidential authority.
“We don’t normally create laws in this country by the stroke of an imperial pen,” Bob Vanasse, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Fishing Communities, told NPR.
“This is not only an end-run around Congress, it’s an end-run around the entire system Congress created to protect these ocean resources.”
Last month, lobstermen and other groups asked a federal judge to find that President Barack Obama lacked the authority to designate the nation’s first marine monument.
In a March 7 federal complaint, the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and four other groups say that designation affects an area that has been an important commercial fishery for decades.
“For centuries, the Georges Bank has supported lucrative fisheries,” the complaint states. “The iconic fishing communities of New England and throughout the East Coast sprang up because of the value of this fishery.”
The commercial fishers say restrictions associated with the monument are causing irreparable harm, and that Obama never explained why or how the nearly 5,000 square miles of the monument constitutes land owned or controlled by the federal government.
Territorial waters extend only 12 miles off the coast, with an economic zone extending 188 miles out, according to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the lawsuit says that Congress has never ratified.
“Nations enjoy limited regulatory authority over the Exclusive Economic Zone but do not have the level of sovereignty they enjoy within their territories,” the lawsuit states.
Different regulations apply in the economic zone, with the New England Fishery Management Council managing the Georges Bank fishery under the parameters of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
The fishery associations say they warned the Council on Environmental Quality that the monument’s establishment could frustrate the council’s efforts to regulate fisheries in a responsible manner, which could result in environmental harm and lead to less sustainable fishing practices.
The associations say want the fishery to remain “under the public, collaborative, and science-based process established by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”